CANNABIS CULTURE – Chris Bennett is preparing for battle in his quest to become the first Canadian legally permitted to use marijuana for religious purposes.
The 47-year-old entrepreneur, religious history buff and cannabis activist from British Columbia is on a crusade through the Canadian federal court system, fighting the government for an exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act that would allow him to possess and grow cannabis for use as a religious sacrament.
‘Sacrament’ is something that many people of faith have used for thousands of years to bring them closer to their god or gods: a religious symbol or act which signifies divine grace and spiritual blessing. Entheogens, psychoactive substances usually derived from natural sources, have been used by various cultures and religions as tools for healing and transcendence as far back as records are kept. Chris believes cannabis is not only one of these substances, but is actually the plant referred to in the Bible’s Book of Revelation as the Tree of Life.
The issue of cannabis and religion is nothing new. Pious potheads have fought high-profile court battles before for the right to smoke in Canada and the United States. Even CBS’s 60 minutes covered the issue in a piece about the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church in Star Island, Florida back in 1979.
Unlike other cannabis and religion cases that have come before the courts (and there have been many), Chris has not been charged with any crime, and therefore is not using his religious views as a defense. In this case, Chris is taking the federal government to court through a Charter of Rights challenge he initiated.
I know Chris quite well; his store, The Urban Shaman, is located at the back of Cannabis Culture Headquarters in downtown Vancouver, right next to my office, and I have been fortunate enough to share many hours of conversation with this modern-day holy warrior. One thing I have learned about him: he takes his beliefs very seriously and has passionately devoted much of his life to his Gnostic faith as well as the fight to legalize marijuana.
Chris is the former manager of Marc Emery’s Pot-TV Network, and has been a prolific contributor to Cannabis Culture for years (check out his CC Blog). He has written two published book on the cannabis plant’s role in religious history, Green Gold the Tree of Life: Marijuana in Magic & Religion and Sex, Drugs, Violence and the Bible. A third, Cannabis and the Soma Solution, will be published this year.
Chris’s lawyer Kirk Tousaw, a fellow cannabis activist and Cannabis Culture contributor (who also happens to have a CC Blog), says current pot laws infringe upon his clients Charter right to freely practice his religion, and that the Canadian government has an obligation to protect those rights by granting him “an exemption from the prohibition against possessing and producing marijuana for his own personal spiritual use under section 56 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.”
Other religious freedom cases not involving drug use, like the ones fought for the right of Jehovah’s Witnesses to refuse blood transfusions when facing death, and the right of Sikhs to carry concealed weapons and to wear turbans instead of helmets, have successfully made it through the court system even though they show some level of harm to the individual or community.
Chris wrote Canada’s Minister of Justice in early 2009 requesting the exemption and provided the Minister with a statutory declaration, an under-oath sworn statement outlining his religious and spiritual beliefs, and included all the information the Minister requests from people seeking a medical marijuana exemption.
The Minister took some time to decide, but ultimately said he didn’t believe it was in the public interest to grant the exemption.
The activists quickly filed action in federal court for a judicial review of the Minister’s decision, and for an order to compel him to issue the exemption or, alternatively, a declaration by the courts that the law prohibiting possession and production of marijuana is unconstitutional and violates Section 2, which protects religious freedoms; Section 7, which protects the liberty and security of the person; and Section 15, which guarantees you equality and prevents discrimination on the basis of religious belief.
Chris has now filed his affidavit, which outlines his case and lists the expert witnesses he intends to bring in to court and explains their arguments.
Witnesses include a cultural anthropologist and a professor of educational psychology (click here to read letters to the court from the witnesses) who agree with Chris that “the ritual use of cannabis has a very long history, both in the Old and New Worlds” and personally attest to Chris’s “sincere belief on his part in the spiritual benefits of his use of cannabis”.
“We think it is in the public interest when the government acts to promote and protect critical, fundamental charter rights,” Tousaw said. “The government has shown that it is perfectly capable of crafting a regulatory scheme to exempt people from penalties for producing and possessing cannabis for their personal medical use. I think there’s no good reason why the government can’t come up with an exemption scheme for people like Mr. Bennett who have sincere religious beliefs and want to practice them without fear of being arrested.”
In the early 1990s, Chris Bennett was a night watchman at a fish-packing plant who spent most of his free time surfing up and down the coast of British Columbia, and occasionally smoking pot. Most of what he knew about the diverse uses for cannabis and hemp came from a documentary film shown to him by a friend. After a number of synchronistic occurrences sparked his interest in the Book of Revelation, Chris began reading the Bible. It wasn’t until he had what he describes as a “religious epiphany” that he realized the divine nature of the cannabis plant and its seemingly endless benefits to mankind.
The experience changed his life, and he quickly became a strong part of the first wave of marijuana and hemp activism emerging from British Columbia, helping to spread the message even before the arrival of Prince of Pot Marc Emery to the province.
He began avidly researching the historical relationship between humankind and the cannabis plant that dates further back than any existing religion, and found that many dominant religions, including Christianity, have utilized cannabis as a way communion with their respective gods or godheads.
Over the years, Chris made hand-drawn posters and t-shirts, produced edible hemp products, and began speaking to the media about the benefits of hemp and the cruelty of marijuana prohibition. In 2000, he was hired by Emery to be the manager of a new video-streaming Internet network called Pot-TV, where he produced episodes of his show Burning Shiva.
In 1997, as a minister of The Church of the Universe, an organization that recognizes cannabis as the Tree of Life, Chris was called as an expert witness to a case in the Supreme Court of B.C. that would have granted a religious exemption for a Victoria man named Ian Hunter [Read CC, Issue #9, “The Supreme Court vs The Supreme Being”]. Ultimately, Chris was denied the right to provide any significant evidence and the court ruled against Hunter.
This year, on top of his own Charter challenge, Chris will be called as an expert witness to a similar case involving the G13 chapter of the Church of the Universe in Ontario, which was raided in 2006 by the Toronto Police “Drug Squad”.
In that raid, police initially arrested over a dozen Church members, but eventually dropped charges against all but two of them. The two men were charged with possession, trafficking and cultivation and are expected to face trial some time in April.
“There are two steps to this case,” George Filipovic, attorney for one of the accused, told Cannabis Culture. “Does the law in fact infringe upon our clients’ Charter right to freely practice their religion – and if it does, is the prohibition of marijuana so important that it should override a person’s Charter right? We’re saying prohibition obviously does infringe upon their rights and that it is nowhere near important enough. Prohibition is not important because the harm caused by marijuana is so nominal, if there is any harm at all.”
Chris’s day of Judgement in court for his own Charter Challenge is expected sometime in the fall or later.
The pot crusader recently took a few minutes away from preparing his case to congregate with Cannabis Culture and discuss the story of his spiritual awakening and his hopes for an enlightened future.
Cannabis Culture: How did you come to the conclusion that cannabis is the Tree of Life as described in the Bible?
Chris Bennett: At the beginning of the Book of Revelation, John the profit is given a scroll that he takes in his mouth and swallows; it tastes as sweet as honey in his mouth, but turns bitter in his stomach – then he begins to prophesize. This was my first hint and I thought, “buddy obviously had something.” And then there were all these references to sackcloth and incense with the prayers and the Saints and the billowing clouds of incense. Then I got to the last paragraph, Revelation 22 and read the verse:
“In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.”
When I read that line I had an experience, like light was just pouring into me, and at that moment I knew cannabis was the Tree of Life and all the fruits were the plants many uses. The ganja plant has all these incredible uses that can help heal our planet, like fuel, fiber, paint, food, clothing, you name it. The Buffalo plant some people call it because, as with the buffalo of the Plains Indians, it serves so many purposes. It is indeed a plant that is harvested every day of every month of every year all over the planet and it’s got these leaves for the healing of the nations.
I started to think, “well, that must be what that Bob Marley guy and all these Rastas were talking about.” I called up my wife at the time and she got really upset and thought I was having some sort of breakdown and started crying on the phone. The next day when I woke up, I was at first undecided if something significant had truly transpired or if I was just really tripping out – but afterwards I just couldn’t leave alone issues regarding pot. I became a cannabis activist and whenever I came across anything regarding the plant’s religious use I started saving it, because I thought “well, if there was anything to that experience then somebody else somewhere will pick up on it and there will be some sort of evidence of it – otherwise it’s just my own crazy trip.” After 20 years researching and writing three books and dozens of magazine articles, I can see the truth of that experience.
CC: And this was before you became a pot activist?
CB: Yes. Before that I really didn’t think about it much. It was funny, because my brother, who was a camp chairman for the IWA, and other people from the area I knew were on the opposite end, and involved in environmental activism at Clayoquot Sound. At about this time I had found out that one acre of hemp will produce the same as four acres of trees over the same 20-year period, and I thought that regarding the issues of jobs vs enviromnet, “problem solved”. I had seen my brother and other activists on the news talking to reporters and I’d be watching the TV saying “why isn’t anybody saying anything about hemp?”. I finally began printing up pamphlets and speaking about it and the next thing I know there are those same reporters walking through my front door coming to talk to me about hemp. So it was kind of an Alice Through the Television Glass experience.
CC: What made you decide to pursue a religious freedoms Charter challenge?
CB: It’s always been my hope to see a religious use Charter challenge take place. It’s hard when you get charged in a criminal trial to make it past the provincial level and be granted the right to have the Charter challenge in the Supreme Court. There’s been NO official Charter challenges for freedom of religion as far as cannabis is concerned at all in Canada – none of the cases have made it past criminal court at the provincial level.
CC: I guess you knew that it would be an uphill battle.
CB: When we applied, we figured we would get turned down and we did – by a representative of the Justice Minister on the basis of public interest. I guess the view is if they grant a religious exemption for cannabis, society would fall apart and all Hell would break loose somehow. But that has not been the case with the medical marijuana exemptions. These exemptions are effective and have not caused public upheaval in any way. So what we’re asking for is an extension of that process to encompass spiritual use.
There was skepticism on the part of the judge and the prosecution. They said, “what do you mean marijuana is a religious sacrament?” It’s just because they aren’t familiar with cannabis and religious history. It’s ironic that we have an First Nations Health Minister (Leona Aglukkaq): it’s hard for me to understand how somebody who has seen their own culture suffer such prejudice, with Canada’s shameful history of outlawing native rituals, would not take the time to look into the matter a little more thoroughly. Indeed, there is a long and established spiritual tradition involving cannabis that goes back to the earliest points of many cultures.
CC: In your experience, is this an issue that most people take very seriously?
CB: I would say that people are starting to take it more seriously. There’s a bunch of different cannabis churches all over the world now, and dozens in the US alone. I think many people that use cannabis intuitively feel that it’s some sort of a symbol for them or what might be called a religious sacrament. At first people kind of scoffed at it but the more they learn about it and the deeper they dig, they say, “oh there’s something to this”.
Now that we have industrial hemp and a medical marijuana program here in Canada, people are more open to the idea that cannabis has been around for a while. Now that they’re open to the idea that it’s been around for a while, let’s talk about the historical role that it’s played – its role was a paramount one in the ancient world just as it is a paramount one today. It was the biggest cash crop in the high days of ancient Syria and Babylon just like it’s the biggest cash crop in today’s American Empire.
CC: You are also currently an expert witness in a similar case involving a group called the Church of the Universe. What is this case about.
CB: I’m going to be taking part in the G-13 case as an expert witness on the Church of the Universe. In this case, the government is bringing in a number of expert witnesses, including a Catholic priest named Roland Jacques who is calling the Church of the Universe a “parody religion”. It’s ironic, because in our church’s view, it is the Catholic church that is largely responsible for the suppression of the cannabis/keneh bosem tradition. Historically we know that the Catholic church burned people to death for using psychoactive plants. They don’t seem to be a very logical witness in a freedom of religion case because, according to them, pretty much every other religion is some sort of heresy of people who are going to Hell.
CC: Though you believe cannabis is the Tree of Life from The Bible, you are not a Christian. What exactly do you believe?
CB: I definitely don’t believe in things like virgin births, the Death and Resurrection, crucifixion stories, Heaven and Hell, or things like that. I probably fit a little bit closer, as far as the Christian worldview goes with what were referred to as Gnostic Christians and their cosmology. I identify a lot with the Nag Hammadi Library texts and other Gnostic texts. I don’t believe in Jehovah, but I do believe there is a collective aspect to consciousness related to the instinctual function analogous to Carl Jung’s Collective Unconscious, but I would say becoming aware of itself, not so unconscious anymore; likely identifiable with what the Gnostics referred to as the Logos, representative of the collective word. I think there is a collective element in humanity that is common to us all – not like an individual soul that can be reincarnated – just kind of one collective human soul that is continually born over and over that’s at the core of our consciousness – and whatever that is really likes cannabis.
CC: In your books, you describe a long history of religion and cannabis use. Who else in history has used pot piously?
CB: Cannabis was involved in the foundation of many cultures and religions that still exist today; whether it be Hinduism, which begins with the Rig-Veda and his praises of the drink Soma (a preparation of cannabis called bhang that is still used in India in honor of Shiva, the oldest continually worshiped God on earth); or in Islam where Sufis had consumed cannabis to get down to the divine spark and essence of the human soul and have done that pretty much since the inception of Islam. This was likely carried over from a pre-Islamic tradition, something like Zoroastrianism – another religion that still exists that begins with Haoma, the Persian counterpart of the Vedic Soma. Or Judaism, where is the keneh bosem, the fragrant cane of Exodus 30:23 that was used in holy anointing oils along; as with Christianity where again it was continually used in holy anointing oils and incense. In Celtic and Druid tomes we know of evidence of cannabis. In China, in the very beginning of the Taoist tradition, cannabis was considered one of the superior immortality elixirs. We know just from archaeological evidence that people have been using cannabis for 5500 years, going back to 3500 BC in the Ukraine where we have the earliest evidence of that tradition in the form of burnt cannabis seeds in a brazier, not to say it might not have taken place millennium before that.
I don’t want to just prove to the judge that cannabis is part of my religion, I want to bring in expert witnesses and show that cannabis is the religion. As far as I’m concerned, there is much more of a historical basis for my belief system than there is for contemporary Christianity or any other religion.
Chris Bennett is a marijuana activist, cannabis historian, and former manager of the Pot-TV Network. He is a regular contributor to Cannabis Culture – read his CC Blog. Check out his website Forbidden Fruit Publishing.